Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Sermon: Deeply Loved

Matthew 3:13-17

Quick bible quiz. Get out a piece of lined paper and put your books away. Sorry couldn’t resist. Actually I am going to have you talk with the people around you and see if you can come up with the answers together. You know that there are four gospels in the bible that tell about the life and work of Jesus. Question 1. How many of those four gospels feature a story of his birth? Discuss with your neighbors. [pause] Question 2. How many of the four gospels feature a story of Jesus’ baptism? Discuss with your neighbors. [pause]

Okay, let’s see how you did. Question 1. How many of the four gospels feature a story of Jesus’ birth? The answer is 2. Matthew and Luke and they tell us different parts of the story. Luke tells us about the shepherds and the angels, and Jesus being laid in a manger.  Matthew tells us about Joseph’s struggle whether to stay with Mary or not, and the wise men following the star.  In the other two gospels: Mark actually mentions nothing of Jesus’ childhood, and John has a discussion of Jesus being the word of God who was from the beginning, but doesn’t say anything about Jesus’ actual birth.

Question 2. How many of the four gospels feature a story of Jesus’ baptism? The answer is 4, all of them. What this suggests is that Jesus’ baptism is more critical to his ministry than any of the Christmas stories. There is something central to this moment at the beginning of his ministry that we need to know. Even more interesting, and revealing is that the four gospels all tell us pretty much the same story. Let me read you what it says in Matthew 3:13-17

At that time Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan River so that John would baptize him. John tried to stop him and said, “I need to be baptized by you, yet you come to me?”

Jesus answered, “Allow me to be baptized now. This is necessary to fulfill all righteousness.”

So John agreed to baptize Jesus. When Jesus was baptized, he immediately came up out of the water. Heaven was opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God coming down like a dove and resting on him. A voice from heaven said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him.”

All four of the gospels contain a story that is more or less like that.

Jesus comes to John, is baptized, the Holy Spirit comes upon Christ, then the voice of God speaks and reveals that Jesus is the Son of God. Quite honestly as you listen to those common parts of the story, you can see why it is so central.

First of all, we have the son of God allowing a human prophet baptize him. In Matthew we even get a discussion of that moment as John objects, “You should be baptizing me!” When you think of it, it is kind of weird. Why is the Holy One, the Sinless One, being baptized by someone who is sinful? What is going on here?

One very early Christian writer, says that Jesus only came to John the Baptist to appease his mother and brothers. The Gospel according to the Hebrews, which is one of the gospels that failed to be included in the New Testament says, “Behold the mother of the Lord and his brothers said to him, “John the Baptist baptizes for the remission of sins; let us go and be baptized by him. “But he said to them, “What sin have I committed, that I should go and be baptized by him? Except perhaps this very thing that I have said is ignorance.”[1]

Our only real clue to why this is happening is Jesus’ answer to John. What Jesus says, is that this is necessary now to fulfill all righteousness. In other words, it is the right thing to do in the eyes of God. Which is sort of like a parent saying, “Because I said so.”

But still there is a reason why God is saying so. I think the most compelling explanation is that Jesus is starting his ministry in much the same way that he will end it. He is submitting to human authority as a way of doing God’s will – just like he will do on the cross. And that submission will bring righteousness for all people. There is something critical to God’s plan that the savior acts humbly and allows us as human beings to take control. Throughout the bible we see God reversing expectations, with the weak being strong and the strong being weak. And this moment is no different.

Charles Hoffacker says this:

“There is a vital connection between baptism and mission. Another way to put it is that there is a vital connection between going down and going out. We do not play our part in the world's redemption when we climb ladders so much as when we are pulled downward. It is out of our pain that we heal. It is out of our poverty that we make others rich. It is from our ignorance that we enlighten others. It is by our brokenness that others become whole. It is from our dying that others come to life. We must follow Jesus in his descent, we must accept his downward mobility and our own if we are to be his true disciples, if we are to allow resurrection in our lives.’

“In this terrible demand that we go down with Jesus in downward mobility, that we go down with him in the murky waters of the river and the dark waters of death in this terrible demand there is good news for us.”[2]

And there is the connection, baptism is in many ways a submission to death. The connection has long been understood that entering the waters is like entering the tomb, we are dead because of sin, we are subject to the hold of death; but when we rise from the waters we are freed from sin and freed from the power of death by resurrection power. So it seems that what Jesus is doing is helping us see that connection between the beginning of his ministry and the end. That in both his submission to human authority leads to death, but his reliance on the power and love of God leads to resurrection.

The second critical element of the story as told by the gospels is

that in this moment, the Holy Spirit comes upon Christ. We are told it looks like a dove (thus the picture). The Holy Spirit is a reminder that baptism isn’t just about the water and being cleansed from sin. While that is often the simple way we explain what is happening, baptism is always by water and the Spirit. There is always the coming of the presence of God into the life of the person baptized. And when God comes into your life, God brings power.

You see before this point in Jesus’ life, he was rather ordinary in how he lived, but now he will begin to do miracles, to call followers, to change the world. Baptism isn’t just about what is taken away, but it is also about what is added to us, given to us, so that we can do miracles, call others to the work of God, and to change the world.

Finally, in all accounts, the baptism story closes with God

revealing who Jesus is, and how deeply God approves of and loves his servant. It is God making sure that Jesus knows this, it is God making sure that John knows it, it is God making sure that we know it. So that as Jesus teaches, as he does his ministry, we understand where his authority and power come from. He is not just another prophet, in fact, he is not just the promised one, or the messiah, but he is God’s own Son. And in coming among us, and walking with us, this divine presence tells us just how deeply loved we are by a good and gracious God.

So those are why the baptism of Jesus is in every gospel.

Jesus’ submission to human authority connects his baptism with his death, the Holy Spirit coming upon him brings God’s power into full view, and the voice that speaks reminds us how much God loves and approves of Jesus. As we see those things: what we discover about ourselves and our baptism, is that we too go down into the waters of death with him, but we are raised to new life, we too are baptized in the Holy Spirit and not only are we cleansed of sin, but we are gifted with life-changing and world-changing power. And finally, we hear the wonderful message through the grace of God, that we too are the beloved of God, a delight to our creator, children of the Heavenly One. Pretty important messages, I would say!

[1] The Daily Study Bible Series, The Gospel of Matthew, William Barclay.
[2] ChristianGlobe Networks, Inc., Downward Mobility, by Charles Hoffacker

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